On October 1, President Obama's nominee for the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Ron Binz, withdrew himself from consideration. It's not often that a person hand-picked by the president backs away from a job, so what happened?
Binz had been surrounded by controversy for weeks before he withdrew his nomination. Though the White House stood behind him for a long time despite the uncertainty of his success, democrats were informed at a caucus meeting Sept. 25 that the president was vetting other candidates for the job, according to Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator who has openly opposed the nomination of Binz.
Perhaps the final straw for Binz occurred Sept. 25 as Republican Sen. Tim Scott declared he would not support the president's nominee, all but sealing his fate. Scott was the last of 10 Republicans to profess opposition to Binz, many citing his preference for renewable energy at the expense of coal power plants as the reason for a no vote.
This followed Manchin's statement Sept. 18 where he publically announced his opposition to the candidate, despite being from the same party. "Mr. Binz's actions prove that he prioritizes renewable over reliability. His approach of demonizing coal and gas has increased electricity costs for consumers," Manchin said.
By the time Obama began looking for new candidates Binz had already lost the support of half of the 22-person Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Without a majority vote from the Senate committee, Binz' nomination wouldn't have been recommended to the full Senate for its consideration. Essentially, Binz pulled the plug on his nomination before the Senate committee officially did it for him.
What caused the lack of support for Binz?
While chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011, Binz facilitated the implementation of the state's bipartisan Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which replaced about 900 megawatts of some of Colorado's more environmentally harmful power sources with cleaner alternatives. Binz also set stronger pollution standards for power plants, while creating incentives for any coal plants that switched over to utilize natural gas. Many believe he will bring the same clean agenda to the FERC.
The commission regulates the interstate transmission and wholesale sale of natural gas, oil and electricity. It also licenses hydropower projects and manages natural gas pipeline proposals. But perhaps its most notable achievements are not what it regulated, but what it didn't.
The FERC is responsible for laying the framework for energy deregulation in many states, starting with the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act in 1978, which encouraged the use of alternative fuels for generating energy — such as the renewable resources that were a major source of contention for Binz today — instead of utility-owned power plants.
In 1992, the commission expanded deregulation by allowing states to separate the transmission, supply and delivery of energy and provide customers with a choice in energy providers. Those who support coal power plants over renewable energy may have an issue with placing someone on the commission who could further the alternative energy-favoring policies already set in place by the FERC.
Though many senators remained leery of Binz's past support of renewable energy, controversy over his nomination began when he misled the Senate committee about his support of coal-fired power plants and damaged his credibility.
In an attempt to bolster support from fossil-fuel backing senators, he told the committee that he approved Colorado's largest coal power plant. However, the plant was approved by the PUC in 2004, three years before Binz even became a member of the organization.
Many politicians already believe Binz to be another piece of Obama's war on coal and in the midst of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of stronger regulations for coal power plants on Sept. 20 Binz's chances of becoming appointed as the FERC chairman grew slimmer.
The EPA's regulations are so stringent that some analysts believe it will render coal impossible to use in the future. The new rules limit the release of carbon emissions from new coal power plants larger than 850 megawatts to 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour. This puts a huge strain on the coal industry since the average coal-fired plant emits more than 1,600 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour.
Needless to say, supporters of big coal weren't exactly jumping on board to support the president's nominee to an energy post in light of the new, strict regulations. Binz, who was already faced with a difficult challenge of convincing those on the Senate committee that he's not against fossil fuels, never stood a chance in the midst of so much controversy.
What comes next?
Whoever is nominated in Binz's place will not lead the FERC alone. The FERC consists of five commissioners, each selected by the president. The commissioners each serve a staggered five-year term, and no more than three commissioners can belong to the same political party, allowing for a bipartisan governing body.
However, the president does get to designate the chairman of the commission, the position Binz was vying for. The head of the commission is typically from the same political party as the president and can often serve as the tie-breaking vote on matters that are deadlocked along party-lines. Once Obama selects a new candidate, he or she will have to go through the approval process by the same Senate committee.